The events of the past two weeks have exposed to an even greater extent than before how the manner in which we conduct modern political campaigns in this country affects the initiation and implementation of public policy and governance decisions once the election is over and a government is selected and installed.
The modern political campaign has evolved into almost a separate entity from the candidate who creates and staffs it. This is true for both political parties and is evident to anyone who is has observed both primary and general election campaigns in the last quarter of this century. It was highlighted in the last ten days when Senator John McCain, I am sure reluctantly, revealed what I believe to be his inner turmoil over the tactics of his own campaign.
With the economic crisis deepening daily, worsening economic news dominating the headlines around the clock, and the 24/7 news cycles reporting a widening Obama lead, I am quite sure that the strategists and managers of the McCain campaign concluded that while John McCain’s chances of reversing these trends are slimming, his only real chance to overcome them is to play on the uncertainty which still surrounds Barack Obama’s history, character and plans if he is elected. This means a focus in ads, and speeches by surrogates particularly Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on “character issues” such as Senator Obama’s “association with William Ayres – a domestic terrorist” , his being labeled in ads as a “Liar” etc.. Indeed it` regrettably has gone so far that Governor Palin has seen fit to say things like, “He doesn’t view the world the way we do”, begging the question of who “we” are.
This strategy is being openly employed by the McCain Campaign. It is obviously implemented with Senator McCain’s knowledge. However, given John McCain’s personal history I can’t help but surmise that his acquiescence in these tactics is not enthusiastic. Why? It is logical to believe that John McCain was recently given the choice by his campaign strategists and managers – either go after Obama’s character, his unfamiliarity, the unknowns, that Barack Obama himself has acknowledged the different way he looks (to some), the way his name sounds, etc. Fill in the unknown blanks with negatives i.e. (“He doesn’t view the world the way we do”, “He pals around with terrorists”.) Inject the targeted “largely white undecided voters” in battleground states with doubt, fear or at least anxiety about the “unknown”. Do this or face certain defeat and give up your dream of the presidency!
All of us imperfect human beings who inhabit this planet are in my opinion far more complex than either our admirers or detractors would like to believe. This decision to conduct the kind of negative campaign against Barack Obama that was conducted against John McCain, himself by George W. Bush in 2000, which he bitterly denounced and forswore not only at that time but in fact until recently, must have been the most difficult decision John McCain has ever made. It betrays virtually his entire political and personal history as well as his rhetoric throughout his career. Ultimately what he did was elevate his ambition to be President of the United States over the principles which he would have brought to the Presidency if he was elected. Not an easy call. What a tradeoff! McCain’s hope, no doubt, is that it works and he can redeem his principles when he enters the White House.
To John McCain’s credit, (except with his most extreme Palin-like partisans) his discomfort with his own campaign’s strategy manifested itself sooner than that at one of his town hall meetings. There at least two members of the crowd, their anger visibly aroused by the tone of the McCain campaign made extremely insensitive and insulting comments about Senator Obama. These insults illustrate the success of the McCain campaign’s strategy of instilling fear and doubt in the minds of their base voters as a motivational tool to intensify their political activity and as a tactic to encourage targeted independent swing voters, to in the privacy of the voting booth, let their fears and anxieties control their vote.
John McCain at that Town Hall meeting directly confronted the vitriol engendered by his own campaign and his running mate’s rhetoric. He explained that Barrack Obama is a “decent person, a family man and you should not be afraid of him as a potential President of the United States.” That gives “off message” a new dimension. That “straight talk” from the candidate completely contradicts the central message of his own general election campaign in 2008. But it is totally consistent with John McCain’s record and rhetoric preceding this campaign. The issue now is whether we’ll hear from the candidate or his campaign for the next three weeks. My bet is we’ll hear from both with dual if not conflicting messages which will no doubt evoke analysis from the pundits characterizing both his campaign and the candidate’s words as “disjointed”, “disorganized” and “incoherent”.
No they’re not. They are two separate entities which for tactical reasons are employing separate strategies hoping one or the other will gain traction with the voters. One is the campaign made up of consultants, ad men and surrogates including the Vice-Presidential candidate whose words have not added one iota of substance to the campaign to date. It is a campaign which has no principles except as the late football coach George Allen said “Winning isn’t everything – It’s the only thing”. The other John McCain, the complex and intelligent human being who is the actual candidate wants to be The President more than maintain his principles most of the time, but is conflicted, suffering and exhibiting pangs of conscience accordingly.
Who is Barrack Obama if he is not the murky, dangerous, or at least “risky” candidate painted by the McCain Campaign. David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, refers to him as a “University of Chicago Democrat”. Leonhardt explains that Obama spent 12 years at the University of Chicago, mostly as a senior lecturer on constitutional law. Although it was only a part-time job which enabled him to make money while he built his political career, it did place him inside what is arguably the intellectual center of modern American economic conservatism known as “The Chicago School of Economics”. Leonhardt there traces Obama’s associations which he reports were not the conservative followers of Milton Friedman, the father of the laissez faire economic philosophy of the “Chicago School,” but rather the “liberals who had come to think that Friedman was right about a lot, just not everything”. In light of recent events these “liberals” may now think that Friedman was right about even less than they did a few months ago. We shall see if Obama is elected because these are the people who it is likely will surround and advise him.
These “liberals” include Cass Sunstein, a prolific law professor whom I have had the intellectually satisfying experience of listening to at the Brookings Institution. Professor Sunstein has extensively spoken and written on law and economics as well as jurisprudential topics, particularly “minimalism”, a judicial philosophy which is championed not by liberal judges, but by Chief Justice John Roberts. Sunstein and Roberts espouse, this philosophy which values courts deciding only issues which are clearly presented and only on the narrowest grounds possible in order to promote unanimity and clarity as well as reduce division and conflict. This is not your conventional liberal.
Leonhardt after interviewing Sunstein and other Chicago colleagues of Obama reports that they believe that “Chicago gave Obama an intellectual framework for his instincts.” What are those instincts and who are the advisors who will shape the “intellectual framework in which he will exercise them? That’s for my next column and hopefully an improved economic outlook two weeks from now.